Islamic Worlds Festival: "Wearing My Religion"

Sep 19, 2016

Sana Rauf

Whatever your thoughts on fashion, it seems clear that what a woman wears can speak volumes about her, before she ever utters a word. 

In part three of our series on the upcoming Islamic Worlds Festival at Virginia Tech’s Center for the Arts, we explore the message of the hijab: the headscarf worn by Muslim women here and all over the world.

“From what I see as someone that wears a headscarf is, I walk with my religion on my head. So it is a little bit harder.”

Sana Rauf is a sophomore at Virginia Tech.  She thinks that sometimes her hijab may create a barrier, with Muslims comprising just over 2 percent of the U.S. population and living mostly in cities, the headscarf is not a common sight around Blacksburg. Rauf, an outgoing young woman with a bright smile says prefers curious people just come out and ask her about it.

“People will ask me like “Where’d you get your scarf and I’m like American Eagle, H & M, Charlotte Russe.  $5.  Great sales. Good scarves.  The ones that you wear around your neck I just put on my head.”

Rauf recalls she first decided to wear the hijab, six years ago, after growing up in northern Virginia because, as she puts it, it just felt right for her.

“It’s a decision someone makes on her own. I’m not oppressed. My parents are hundreds of miles away. If anybody was forcing me to wear it, you know – I mean, I’m here. I could take it off if I wanted to. I don’t.”

Rachel Scott who teaches a course on Woman and Islam at Virginia Tech sees the hijab is a powerful symbol that’s often misinterpreted.

“People are almost too concerned with it. It does a lot of work for everyone. If one wants to project notions that somehow Islam is suppressive of women – and it’s not that actually, the hijab is not pressured in some context, it is.  So all of this is not to say, let’s replace this narrative with ‘everything is great.’”

“It is hard for the Muslims who wear the hijab and those who don’t wear the hijab,” says Nahid Farhady Ghalaty, a 3rd year PHD student in computer engineering and past president of the Iranian society at Virginia Tech. 

“I’m not using the head scarf but I have nice boundaries with people who are non-Muslim but with very religious people it is hard to communicate.”

“There’s a misconception that the Islamic world is a singular monoculture of some sort,” says Carmen Gitre, Assistant Professor of History.  She sites the words of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, no relation to Sana, who made the argument after 9-11 that there are often more commonalities between moderates different religions than there are among co-religionists .

“And if we understand there are a lot of very powerful connections between moderates of different religions and secular groups and that that’s the majority and that those relationships are the predominant one, but for some reason, those voices are not very loud.”

And that’s where art and literature can sometimes address the situation, offering their unique form of commentary. Nadine Sinno is Assistant Professor of Arabic. She points to a series of poems about the hijab, by Mohja Kahf in a book called Emails from Scheherazade.

“Some of the poems explore, for example, how, you know, someone sees her in public and automatically starts to assume that she is, quote, from a country where women don’t drive that she carries bombs under her scarf.  And she retaliates by saying ‘Yes I carry explosives, they are called words. And if you don’t get off your assumptions they will blow you away.’”

Assumptions about how Muslim women dress will be explored in a fashion show. Part of the series of talks, performances, food tastings and other programs at the Worlds of Islam Festival at Virginia Tech’s Center for the Arts that begins next month.